Marci Bowers: the pioneer surgeon next door

Dr. Marci Bowers is a pelvic and gynecologic surgeon who has performed 1600 gender reassignment surgeries, 400 hysterectomies, and thousands of other surgeries throughout her decades-long career. She is world renowned for pioneering gender reassignment surgery and is one of few physicians worldwide who perform the surgical reversal of female genital mutilation (FGM) free of cost. A Member-Elect of the European Academy of Sciences, she has been featured in numerous scholarly publications and documentaries, and a five-minute walk from Burlingame High will take you to her office on Lorton Avenue.

 As the first transperson to perform gender reassignment surgeries, Bowers has garnered a reputation not only for being a pioneer in her trade, but a valuable source of empathy during the taxing transition process. As an obstetrician and gynecologist in Seattle in the 1970s, Bowers began her own complicated transition from man to woman at the age of 38.

 “I became an OB-GYN partly as a substitute for gender feeling, but it didn’t work,” Bowers said of this period in her life. On her school experience, she said she was not associated with the LGBT community, and that she was a bully victim purely for being the “new kid on the block” and being “different enough.” It wasn’t until she was in her thirties that she began to confront her gender identity and began to help others make their way through transition.

 Having emerged from the difficult process with a new sense of empowerment, Bowers studied under veteran surgeon Dr. Stanley Biber to perform gender reassignment surgeries.

“I was originally based in Trinidad, Colorado, but now home is here [in Burlingame],” Dr. Bowers said one afternoon following a strenuous series of eight lectures in ten days. Trinidad is a small town of less than 10,000 known for its proximity to the Santa Fe Trail and the site of the 1914 Ludlow Massacre. By the 1970s, however, it was dubbed the “sex change capital of the world.” After performing his first gender reassignment surgery in 1969, Dr. Biber saw his reputation soar and began performing up to four gender reassignment surgeries a day. In 2003, Dr. Bowers took over his practice.

“Reactions ranged from benign indifference to wild enthusiasm,” she said of the city’s evolving response to their internationally recognized reputation.

“But I’d say a majority of Trinidad was supportive since it has such a flourishing, progressive arts community,” Bowers said.

According to Bowers, about a tenth of the city’s population “hold the Bible up and spread bigotry,” denouncing Trinidad’s title. At one point, a religious conservative group cited a John Hopkins University study in their argument against the fulfilling effects of gender reassignment surgery for the transgender community. Nevertheless, Bowers describes the town as forward thinking.

In 2010, she moved to California, which she calls a “progressive state of progressive ideas.” On her experience at Mills Peninsula Medical Center, Bowers said she had such a positive experience with the nursing staff and gynecology department that she “had to come back to the west coast professionally” in 2010. Here, she joined Bay Area native and plastic surgeon Dr. Joel Beck at the Bay Area Aesthetic Surgery in order to make the order to make the facility an international center for the feminization and masculinization elements of transition surgery.

Not only is she taking on a long waiting list of clients at her own gynecologic practice, but Bowers is also preparing for a trip to Nairobi, Kenya, where 57 FGM sufferers are waiting for free treatment.

“I do these types of trips once a year, but last year we couldn’t go to one village due to an Al Qaeda firebombing,” Bowers said.

In 2007, Bowers was approached by international relief organization Clitoraid, which recognized FGM as a humanitarian crisis. Many other physicians turned down the offer to study under Dr. Pierre Foldès, a co-inventor of a technique to repair the damage caused by FGM, due to the organization’s association with Raelism. Dr. Bowers is one of few who agreed to look past the controversial origins of the non-profit so that she could help reverse the traumatic effects of FGM, which can in some cases obstruct the birth canal.

Due to her extensive experience in the medical field, Bowers emphasized the importance of humility. From the vitriolic judgement she has seen trans people endure to the harmful assumptions made about FGM victims, humility is a priority in her book. She calls on youth to  “be sensitive to the fact that your life affects other people around you.”

“There’s such an unhealthy attitude towards taxes today,” Bowers said, calling on teens to change the way the country looks at public services. “People don’t realize that taxes benefit all people in a global, regional, and personal scale.”

Funding for public education, transportation, and healthcare are issues that must be addressed by young people according to Bowers, who says that the most important issue teens are facing is the gap between the rich and the poor, which she herself has seen even after 20 years of work as an OBGYN when she moved to Burlingame.

California, a state with a generally progressive nature, harbors positive feelings towards the causes Bowers advocates for. Nevertheless, Bowers has advice for teens today, especially trans youth, who are three times more likely to develop a mental illness.

“Binaries are not natural, especially when it comes to gender. It doesn’t need to be as scary as it used to be, so don’t be afraid!”

Posted on May 1, 2017 .